Riding out the Waves of Emotion with and in Nature

What would it be like if we responded to perceived ‘negative’ feelings in the same way we responded to ‘perceived’ positive feelings?  You know the feelings I’m talking about; the ones that make our body feel uncomfortable.  Anger, sadness, grief, guilt, pain, hurt, shame, jealousy and the like.   Growing up we learn to push these feelings away, ignore them, get over them, put a lid on them or deny them.  In fact, society expects us to.  And if we can’t, then we are told to go to a counsellor to learn how to, because there must be something wrong with us.

What if instead we were to normalise these feelings, rather than to see them as abnormal or bad?  After all, it’s only the behaviour that accompanies these feelings that may cause a problem, not the feeling itself.   Somewhere along the line society has labelled emotions ‘negative’ and ‘positive’.  The so named ‘negative’ ones we want to avoid.  The ‘positive’ ones we crave more of.  We should to be happy all the time, right?

What if we were instead to ride through the wave of perceived ‘negative’ emotion, like a piece of driftwood that rides the ocean currents, knowing eventually the rough and tumble will be over and it will wash up on the shore, ready to dry out and fulfil its potential in the sun?

Nature has much to teach us about living with our emotions, just as nature is a stimulus for experiencing emotion.  Nature shares with us her awesome presence and we experience feelings of awe and wonder staring at a sky filled with millions of stars.  We dwell in delight and joy at the sound of birdsong or a fleeting visit from a timid animal in the forest.  We are wrapped up in happiness and excitement as we discover unexplored, beautiful places that take our breath away.   Our bodies respond to these sensory experiences in pleasurable ways.  We are totally present in the here and now, relishing in the feeling of the moment.

The skill of being mindful in nature can be applied to all our emotions, not just the ones that give us sensations of comfort.  Nature provides some clues about this.  A fire sweeping through the bush is horrifying and scary.  Trees do not enjoy having their leaves stripped bare or bark scarred.  But they stand there, remaining steadfast.  They ride it out.  They slow down their breathing and conserve their energy.  Trees have learnt how to protect themselves from past experience by growing thick bark.  Eventually, the smoke clears, the rains come, and seeds burst forth in regrowth.

What if we were to sit with our emotion in the moment and bring the same kind of awareness to our experience, as we do with ‘positive’ emotions?  To sit and dwell in the pit of crappiness, to bring awareness to the tightness in our stomach, to be accepting of our vulnerability, to notice the change in sensations as the feeling eventually passes.

What if we were to treat our emotions like a friend to get to know rather than an enemy to run away from.  With curiosity, get to know its habits, its likes, its dislikes.  If you can recognise the signs of its arrival, you can be prepared, and find a place to sit and ride it out (preferably in nature which has immediate calming and relaxation effects).

Indigenous peoples do not push their grief away or hide it or try to move through it quickly.  They spend many days or weeks, sometimes months expressing their sorrow after the passing of loved ones.  They feel it shifting through their bodies as they dance and sing to the natural rhythms of the earth.

Experiencing and sitting with the full gamut of emotions is what it means to be human.

For those that have experienced trauma, the experience of sitting with emotions can be much more difficult.  Our response, driven by the brain’s need to protect us, might shut our body down completely so we don’t have to feel at all, or help us get ready to fight or run away from a perceived threat.  This is where nature’s healing powers can really do its work.  When uncomfortable or painful feelings come to the fore, nature provides the distraction needed to calm our over-reactive limbic system.  Taking some time to sit in green space with the sun on your face, the breeze drifting over your skin or the grass beneath your feet, is the first step to retraining your brain through a mindfulness practice.  Building up the muscles in your brain to bring awareness to your felt sense, slowly makes space for the more uncomfortable feelings to be explored in small steps over time.  Sometimes a support person or counsellor is needed to guide this process.

Every feeling we have is normal.  They are part of this journey called life.  They come and go.  Even those that are a result of traumatic experience can be healed, through a practice of mindfulness in nature.

Be gentle on yourself.  Sit with your emotions.  All of them.  Breathe through them.  Notice their passing.

Nature is brave enough to do it.  Humans are nature, so we can too.

‘The Earth is our Master Teacher’ with Bernard Kelly-Edwards

This week on ‘Talk the Walk’ I sit down with Bernard Kelly-Edwards in the middle of his tiny art shop in the thriving alternative community of Bellingen.   Bernard is surrounded by paintings, expressions of who he is, a local Gumbayngirr man, and symbols of the deep spiritual connection to country that he shares with others.

Bernard began his own journey of self-discovery attending a cultural program called Red Dust Healing and now reaches out to other individuals and groups to support Closing the Gap in cultural understanding.   It is his passion for promoting mental health amongst Indigenous young people using the healing capacity of Miimga (Mother Earth) that is the focus of our conversation today.

His business, BKE Consultancy is a unique mix of multi-media platforms of art, photography, short film, poetry and storytelling.  Bernard brings all these talents, along with skills of deep listening and knowledge of Aboriginal Lore, recognising sight and the feeling of cultural sites, passed down to him.

A few times in this conversation, Bernard speaks of the spirit being, the one with no mouth.  He is describing the image in the painting, he is seen holding here.

This is what we explore in Episode 22 of ‘Talk the Walk’:

  • Bernard’s approach to ‘counselling’ using the tools he has found most effective from his own experience and gifts from Mother Earth
  • What deep listening really looks and feels like, for our own and others’ health and wellbeing
  • Easy practices you can try at home to develop your spiritual connection with Mother Earth and your self
  • The elements of life such as water, animals and wind that make communication and connection possible
  • Lessons for how we are living our lives, from the Earth’s perspective
  • Awareness – Balance – and Integration; Bernard’s 3 step strategy for healing of the planet beginning at home
  • How Bernard uses the concept of perceptual positions to assist individuals to take responsibility in their own healing process
  • Making deadly choices and being in the present moment, using the model of awareness, balance and integration
  • How Bernard works with the triggering emotions of individual’s past traumatic experiences to change belief systems and move people forward
  • Bernard’s sparkling moment – a good news story of healing
  • Bernard’s painting and it’s interpretation of his own spiritual form

Image: Bernard K Edwards

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We apologise for some of the human-made background noise at the beginning of this interview.   That’s what happens when you are talking with real people on the job in the heart of their community.   Sometimes you just have to go with it.   Enjoy!

Things to follow up after the episode:

Connect with Bernard K Edwards on Facebook

Connect with BKE Consultancy on Facebook

Contact Bernard by email at bkeconsultancy79(at)hotmail(dot)com

“Why I love Trees”:  My Journey of Nature Connection

Today is ‘International Day of Forests’.  It is also the last day of my six month practicum of training with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.  Very soon I will be a Certified Guide.  In the last week I’ve been reflecting on this journey and how this all come about.

I think it all starts back in my childhood when I spent most hours outside on the farm in country Victoria.  I have fond memories of the vege garden, looking after animals, bike riding on country roads and driving the tractor for dad.  I didn’t spend much time inside, preferring to generally wander the paddocks amusing myself, kicking field mushrooms or throwing cow pats like discuses. I used to spend hours lying on a big branch in an old gum tree, making up stories in my head about the creatures that lived there.   Nature was my playground.

I’ve always loved playing in trees.

As you do, I left home at 21 thinking there was something better.  I got married young, had a family, bought my first house, travelled overseas and moved to a big city to get a degree and pursue a career.  It was about accumulating lots of stuff.  But Brisbane got crowded and I yearned to get back to a quieter life, so went back to Darwin 11 years ago with my beautiful family in tow.

I was drawn into bushwalking, taking up invitations to hike with friends in Kakadu.  I heard about permaculture and joined a community garden.  I also had the privilege of being out on country with Aboriginal Elders on the Tiwi Islands and an outstation in NE Arnhemland, where I felt, smelt, sensed and heard stories about their human-nature spiritual connection.

Hiking the Jatbula Trail near Katherine in 2017.

I can now appreciate how lucky I was to have been so close to nature as a child, as I find myself coming back around to many of the practices that kept me grounded and healthy.

Over the years while practising social work on the Tiwi Islands, I came to learn about narrative therapy and a groupwork methodology called the Tree of Life.  After sharing these ideas with some of the Tiwi Elders, I came to realise the power of the tree metaphor in helping Aboriginal people tell their problem stories in ways that were non-shaming and safe, as well as strong stories about healing from the ‘storms’ of their lives, working together like a forest.  I discovered that yarning about problems using nature metaphors helps to integrate trauma experiences without retraumatising people.  We used these ways of yarning in counselling, groupwork and family healing bush camps.  I also write a children’s therapeutic book called ‘The Life of Tree’ to help Aboriginal kids open up about their experience of violence in families.

Trees have become important metaphors in my work too.

In 2013, I caught an early diagnosis of thyroid disease and was told I would eventually have to go on medication.  Not accepting this fate, I turned to natural medicine for answers – taking supplements to make up for our mineral-depleted soils, cutting out foods that were contributing to my body’s autoimmune response, quitting my job to de-stress, joining the ‘slow living’ movement, and taking up meditation (although I struggled to make this a daily practice).  By 2016 I had no evidence that Hashimotos disease had ever been part of my life.  Once again, nature had shown me the way.

In the background, I had a growing sense of unease, helplessness and despair at the state of the planet.  I mulled about the future my children would have to deal with and noticed the global trends in increased anxiety, depression and suicide in young people coping with the pressure of modern, domesticated life.  I read about ‘nature deficit disorder’ as a result of children’s technology use and the detrimental affect excessive screen time was having on their development.   Something has to change and quickly.  The earth does not have the luxury of time if we are to repair the damage we’ve done, and at what cost to our own physical and mental health?

Fast forward to April 2017 when I find myself in the wild West of Tasmania.  My girlfriend had to pull out of our planned trip at the last minute because of her mum’s terminal illness.  I’d never travelled on my own before, and I was constantly thinking about my safety out in the wilderness walking alone.  But by the end of my holiday, I had come to enjoy my own company so much, that it took me a while to be around people again.  I was also in awe of the beautiful old growth forests that boasted trees that were more than four hundred years old.  Nature has always been important to my own growth, health and wellbeing.  But this experience took me to a level of nature connection and a sense of freedom, that I’d never experienced before.  I wanted more.  It was shortly after this that I heard about Nature and Forest Therapy (NFT) and decided to train as a Guide in September 2017.

Learning how to be on my own in nature in Tasmania’s wild West.

I experienced an amazing week-long intensive immersed in the Yarra Ranges engaging in mindful walks in nature every day.  NFT is inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin Yoku or forest bathing.  While learning the skills of helping others slow down using intentional invitations to connect with nature and ignite the senses, I learnt how to slow myself down even more.  Believe me, it is intensive.  Practising mindfulness every day takes discipline and practice when you are the kind of person that always has multiple projects on the go and a mind that never rests.  After a week, I just wanted to run or go for a long hike.  No more slow!  But seriously.  This is the practice that is going to sustain my health and wellbeing long into the future.  And there are a lot of scientific studies coming out now to prove it.  For me, it’s about finding the balance between living and working in the ‘real world’ and engaging with the ‘natural world’.  As Richard Louv says “The more connected to technology we become, the more nature we need to achieve a natural balance.”

Me and my fellow Guides during our training intensive in the Yarra Ranges.

Over the past six months I’ve learnt a lot about myself – about my ‘edges’ and how to dissolve irrational fears; about how to let go of agendas and trust nature will lead the way; what it means to live out your life according to your values and beliefs even when the chips are down; what it feels like to be part of a community of like-minded folk who also care about the planet and each other; the relief of discovering the beauty in humanity; and finding hope again after experiencing the resilience of nature.  I have a long way to go but I’m feeling much more connected to the more-than-human world than ever before.   On one of my recent Nature and Forest Therapy walks someone said ‘I’ve been practising mindfulness meditation for years, but I’ve never experienced anything like this before.’  I know right?  I’ve been there.  And now as an NFT Guide, I get to witness the personal profound insights others gain on my three hour slow wanders in nature.  I’m also buoyed by the possibility of people being inspired to take action against climate change and in their personal daily habits, because of their renewed sense of connection and care for the planet.  NFT has the power to do this too!

Guiding a Nature and Forest Therapy walk in Nambucca State Forest.

As I come to the end of my practicum I feel incredibly grateful for the support of my mentors, friends and family, the resources that allow me to follow my heart and dreams, and the start I had in life back on the farm that sowed the seeds of nature connection.

Happy ‘International Day of Forests’ to you.  Do your body, mind and spirit a favour.  Get outside, play, explore, skip, make art using nature’s treasures, gaze at water, climb a tree.  Don’t think about it too much.  Follow your instincts.  And when the forest speaks to you….listen.

‘Nature’s cure for all our ills’

Have you ever wondered what nature could offer you and your clients… especially those that are affected by chronic stress, mental health issues, physical pain, despair and heartache?

I have just completed an initial week’s training intensive to become a certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide.  I can attest to both the physical and mental health benefits that being in nature offers.   I had a heightened awareness that back and groin pain which has been niggling me for 12 months suddenly disappeared.   I noticed that stress that I had been carrying in my jaw and neck from my fast-paced, outcomes driven, work life floated away with the clouds that passed overhead.   I was connecting and communicating with beings from the more-than-human world in an intimate way, that I had never felt before.  I also discovered a tall tree overlooking a valley held a message of hope for my heart despairing at the state of our planet.  It was freeing for my mind, body and soul.  But don’t just take my word for it.

There is a lot of emerging evidence about the health effects of being in the forest.  Scientific research on the practice of Shinrin Yoku (or forest bathing) in Japan has found that simply being in the wilderness can increase immune function, reduce blood pressure, reduce stress, improve mood, increase focus and concentration, improve rates of recovery from surgery and illness, increase energy and improve sleep.

How is that so?  Well, the same compound that trees emit to protect themselves from germs and pests is the same essential oil that improves our immune system.  They are called phytoncides and they produce cancer-fighting natural killer cells in our body.

Guides-in-training and members of the public experience the ‘Pleasures of Presence’ on a Forest Therapy walk in the Redwoods of the Yarra Ranges (Sept 2017).   Photo: Jana Norman.

We always knew that being in nature felt good, didn’t we?   Now there is real evidence to prove that living a fast, active, technology dominant lifestyle is counterproductive and could potentially promote chronic physical and mental illness.  People on regular forest therapy walks are also reporting feeling happier, developing deeper more meaningful relationships, feeling more connected with the land and its species, having more energy and developing a more attuned intuition.

It seems as though the Western world, is just catching up to what Indigenous peoples have always known.  During my time on the Tiwi Islands, as both a drug and alcohol counsellor and children’s counsellor, Elders and other strong women repeatedly spoke about ‘going out bush’ as the best remedy for ‘wrong thinking’ and wayward behaviour.  Within my capacity and resources, I drew on the knowledge of these wiser ones to host healing camps out bush with families who were going through hard times and to reconnect children who were going off the rails with a traditional healing ceremony on country (or if that was not possible at least use the metaphors of the natural world in our therapeutic conversations).

What can ‘walking on country’ practised for thousands of years by Aboriginal people do for our health and wellbeing?

In Forest Therapy, the medicine we need is waiting to be discovered in nature and it is up to the client to do the hard work of discovering what the forest is telling them.  The Guide simply opens the door for people by offering them mindful invitations, being open to listening to the messages of support, encouragement, healing or survival that are communicated by all living things.  This concept sounds very familiar too, observed in the way Aboriginal women demonstrate their spiritual connection to the land.  I’ve been woken up in the middle of the night by the barking owl to be advised that (insert name) must have passed away.  I’ve been out hunting when a branch has fallen from a tree, a sign from the ancestors that there is a possum there to be caught for dinner.  I’ve watched women scouting the bush for ‘just the right vine’ which will yield a big, long, fat yam two feet underground, left wondering how do they know, when all vines look the same?  And I’ve heard numerous stories of miracle cures for persistent ailments using bush medicine, where modern medicine has failed.  The knowledge for living a good and healthy life is right there on country, if we are in tune.

Unfortunately, the government policies of today are forcing Aboriginal people off their country and into the towns to be closer to services, and along with this, alcohol, drugs, unhealthy food options and other social issues like overcrowding and domestic violence.  We are seeing the health effects of this lifestyle for Aboriginal people and it’s not good.

As a social worker, this has got me thinking seriously about nature as a form of intervention for people who come to us for help.  The forest provides healing in gentle and profound ways, that we as humans cannot.  It requires a step away from evidence-based talk therapies from Western culture towards intuitive traditional healing practices and spiritual connections to nature that have been used for thousands of years.

If we don’t believe the anecdotal evidence from Aboriginal people about the positive health effects of being connected to country, then we can at least take notice of the emerging evidence from shinrin yoku practices in Japan.
Nature has something for everyone.  Even those of us whose heart is aching for the destruction of nature itself.